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Pet Surgery: 6 Ways to Care for an Animal After an Operation

By:  Laura Haselbarth, CVT, VTS

Taking good care of your pet after surgery is essential for your furry loved one’s recovery. Without the right attention they may experience pain, complications, and their behavior will take longer to return to their usual routine.

In this article we will walk through some of the ways surgery can affect a pet, and what to do in response.

1. Spotting and Managing Pain After Pet Surgery

One of the main things pet owners ask themselves is “How can I tell if my pet is in pain?”

Pain is associated with surgery, disease or illness, and has both physical and emotional components. A vital part of veterinary medicine includes maintaining quality and compassionate care by preventing and managing pain both in the hospital and when the patient is discharged.

Some signs of pain that a pet might show at home include not eating/drinking, panting, restlessness shaking or trembling, not wanting to interact normally, looking at or the urge to lick/chew at surgical site, or flinching/increased body tension when surgical site is gently palpated

The most common sign of pain is a change in behavior. If your pet is normally vocal and is acting more subdued, this can be an indication of pain or discomfort. On the other hand, if your pet is normally quiet and is vocalizing more this can be a sign as well. Reduced interaction with other pets and owners, inappropriate eliminations (urinating in the house), aggression, abnormal posture, restlessness, and hiding can also be signs of pain.

For cats, pain is more difficult to assess compared to dogs; the signs are more subtle. Cats will also not eat, in addition they may also pin their ears back, and sit looking uncomfortable/stiff as opposed to in happy cat balls. They may not groom as well. While there are not as many types of pain or anti-inflammatory medication to use as compared to dogs, there are medications to help.

Another common question is “How can I tell the difference between anxiety and pain?”

Keep in mind that the first 24 hours your pet is home after hospitalization is the most common time for anxiety to be seen. A vocalizing or struggling pet who when approached or touched calms down is more likely to have anxiety rather than pain. If your pet does not calm down when given attention they may be experiencing pain. Also, anxiety will usually tend to be higher pitched and frantic, while pain is often quieter and more subdued.

2. How to Soothe a Pet after Surgery

Along with the appropriate pain medication, environmental changes are helpful. Things such as extra padding on bedding, raised food dishes and non-slip surfaces. Try inexpensive rugs, rubber matting or children’s soft linking play mats from hardware stores to help your pet walk around if your house has a lot of hardwood or tile flooring.

Most animals have activity restrictions placed upon them in the post-operative period. This means your pet may not be able to sleep in their normal area. Therefore, if your pet is used to sleeping with you, bring their crate or bed to you, or bring your bedding downstairs to sleep with them.

Also remember that pets are creatures of habit, returning to a normal routine (while still abiding by any required restrictions) can be very helpful.

3. Feeding Your Pet After Surgery/Monitoring Bowel Movements 

It’s very likely that your pet’s appetite will change after surgery and there are some ways to help. With cats, they can be finicky eaters, both in hospital and at home. To make food more enticing to them try feeding them warmed canned food which will make the food have a stronger smell. Try canned food, or meat baby foods as some cats prefer this while recovering. With dogs try mixing food with warm water or broth. You can also try canned food, bland people food like chicken and rice, or adding baby food as well.

As for bowel movements, many patients may not have a bowel movement for four to five days post-operatively. Anesthesia, pain medications, lack of appetite, and decreased movement all play a role in decreased gastrointestinal mobility. As long as your pet is not straining and trying to pass a bowel movement there is no need to be concerned. The severe constipation seen in people post-operatively is rare in cats and dogs. Canned pumpkin has shown to help move along the GI tract. Call your veterinarian for the recommended amount of canned pumpkin to give your dog or cat.

Some pets may take to the pumpkin readily or you may mix the recommended amount into each meal. If stool becomes too soft reduce the amount of canned pumpkin. 1-2 days of treatment is generally all that is necessary.

4. Side Effects of Pain Medication After Pet Surgery

All medications have side effects. Some NSAIDs can cause GI upset, or rarely affect the liver or kidneys. Pets should be monitored for signs of lethargy, depression, vomiting, diarrhea or anorexia. Some pain medications can cause drowsiness, or possibly the opposite and cause panting, agitation, disorientation and vocalization due to their narcotic like properties. Sedatives and anti-anxiety medications will cause sedation. If you have trouble determining side effects vs pain, try stopping the medication for 12-24 hours. If the signs dissipate then it was most likely a medication reaction; if the signs persist then it is most likely pain.

5. Protective Devices

Pets are often sent home with protective collars (often called e-collars), protective shirts, or boots to protect bandages. Anything your pet is sent home with has been deemed necessary by the Doctor and should be used as directed.

When incisions are healing they can become itchy and pets will lick them. If your pet licks the incision it can cause the incision to open up and will introduce bacteria into the incision that can lead to infection, further irritation and potentially the need for additional surgery. Most dogs and cats can eat, drink, and sleep well with e-collar on and animals can do a lot of damage to a surgical incision in a very short period of time without the e-collar. We recommend leaving the e-collar on at all times unless your pet’s sutures have been removed. If you do take the e-collar off make sure they are under direct supervision so that your pet cannot lick or chew at the incision.

6. How/where should I confine my pet after surgery? 

Small dogs and cats can be confined to a crate (a large dog crate is fine to allow them to move around a little), an upside-down baby pen or small room such as a laundry room, bathroom, etc.

Larger dogs can be confined to a crate if you have one, or a downstairs room such as a laundry room, bathroom, or dining room. If you do not have any doors try using a baby gate to block off the doorway or an adjustable pet play pen from a pet store.

If you are at home and able to supervise your pet – they may be out in the room that you are in but make sure the doors are shut or blocked off or put your dog on a leash so they cannot take off if the doorbell rings, etc.

If you have any additional questions about taking care of your pet at home after a surgery, please contact your veterinarian.